Deep catharsis is the order of the day on How Can It Be?
, the seventh album by pianist and composer Gordon Lee
, set to drop June 16 on PJCE Records. Written during the COVID-19 pandemic, the album’s nine originals—performed by the Portland
, Oregon-based Lee and his quartet with tenor saxophonist Renato Caranto
, bassist Dennis Caiazza
, and drummer Gary Hobbs
—reflect the leader’s urgent need to express powerful emotions at a time when musical performance was limited at best.
In addition to inspiring this rich set of compositions, those challenging days were also the direct catalyst for the quartet’s formation. Lee had little to do but write and practice until his wife convinced him to turn that work into performances on the front porch of their home. Those homespun concerts for the neighbors became “my antidote, my personal way of fighting back against not just the virus but the fear,” he recalls. “It felt like something positive I could do.” They began as duos with Caranto, then evolved into quartets with Caiazza and the late drummer Carlton Jackson (to whom How Can It Be?
is dedicated). Hobbs is newly recruited for the album.
The emotions Lee channeled into his music at that time naturally included some dark and somber tones, as can be heard on the opening title track and the harrowing “Angry Mother Nature.” Yet that’s only a thin slice of the pie. The album also features quirky and amiable burlesque (“Shaky Assets”), offbeat, sardonic humor (“A Robin Weeps,” “Bozo Sulks on the Golf Course”), and small moments of triumph (“’Deed I Did It”). It’s a rich collection of material that reminds us of the full range of humanity that underscores even our bleakest experiences.
At a tight 48 minutes, How Can It Be
? is also a testimony to the discipline and mastery of Caranto, Caiazza, and Hobbs as well as Lee. Basing their performances here on those highly restricted days of COVID, they demonstrate their ability to hit the bandstand and speak their pieces with economy and precision, but no less emotional weight or expression. In that sense, the album is a distillation of what Lee describes as the musician’s mission “to play from the inside of your soul.”
Gordon Lee was born April 26, 1953 in New York City. At 12 years old, he found himself behind the drum kit of a junior high school garage-rock band. By 14 he had transferred over to the piano, on which he obtained his first paying gig at a school dance. The bug had well and truly bitten him, and Gordon matriculated a few years later at Indiana University to study with the legendary jazz educator David Baker.
It was also at IU that he crossed paths with trumpeter and Portlander Richard Burdell, who convinced Lee that the Pacific Northwest metropolis was a great place for a working musician. After earning his BM in 1976, Lee made the move to the West Coast and found that Burdell had been right. Though he would return for a few years to New York to live and work, Lee soon enough made his way back to Portland, where he’s remained for nearly 40 years since.
He connected there with Jim Pepper
, the respected Native American tenor saxophonist who had been a founding member of jazz-rock groundbreakers Free Spirits. Pepper became Lee’s mentor and collaborator, working together in Portland and around the world until the saxophonist’s death in 1992. “I played with Jim all over the world,” Lee recalls. “He really instilled in me that you have to play from the bottom of your soul, every time, even though most gigs are not about that.” Lee also became a steadfast musical partner of drummer Mel Brown, with whom he still plays today. (They worked together as co-leaders on 2014’s recording Tuesday Night
Lee established himself as an educator, teaching jazz studies at Western Oregon University and Reed College, among others, while also finding time to earn a master’s degree from Portland State University in 1999. In addition, he built a career as a bandleader, beginning in 1990 with his debut album Gordon Bleu.
Five more albums followed, with ensembles ranging from the big band of 2004’s Flying Dream
to the trio of 2010’s This Path
, before the release of How Can It Be?How Can It Be?
isn’t his only takeaway from the pandemic. Hundreds of hours with his Baldwin Grand also resulted in his first solo piano album, The Remainder
(PJCE Records), “which was a product of the same gestation.” With an unprecedented expanse of free time on his hands, Lee explains, “I ended up practicing a lot, and practicing always leads to composing for me.”
Gordon Lee will be performing CD release shows at The 1905, Portland, on Sunday, 7/2, and at Christo’s, Salem, OR, on Thursday, 7/13.